Nepal celebrates Gaijatra by marking a public holiday. It is a celebrated affair all over the country and is one of the main festivals of the Newari community. Newars are linguistically precise and have a cultural heritage that dates back over eight centuries and even more. They were the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley. They rose to prominence under the Malla Dynasty and its cultural heritage is unassailable making them one of the foremost oldest and prime communities of Nepal.
Gaijatra literary translates as Gai – Cow, and Jatra – festival but this is not to be confused as a festival of cows, like the Gai Tihar which is entirely different. The story behind this is heart-rendering, and it is interesting to note that this festival has been an integral part of the Newar community imbibed and inculcated to fit in contemporary Nepalese society. There are different versions of celebrations which mainly began in Kathmandu Valley.
One such historical anecdote talks about the death of King Pratap Malla’s son just two days after the latter took the reign as ruler of the Kathmandu Valley. Unfortunately, Prince Chakrabartendra was trampled by an elephant which led to his instantaneous death. The Queen was left shattered and heartbroken at the loss of her son. King Pratap who adored his wife wanted to see her happy. Thus began the festival of Gaijatra.
It was said that the King asked people to initiate a procession dressed in colorful flashy costumes, along with a cow which is regarded sacred in the Hindu culture, and the only animal known to open the gates of heaven. People participated in the procession amid fanfare as most in their lifetime had lost a loved one. This made the Queen realize that she was not alone in her grief. Hence to his very day, the festival of Gaijatra is celebrated in memory of a loved one, hoping that they would get their rightful place in heaven.
King Pratap Malla later went on to build the artificial pond popularly known to this day as Rani Pokhari, literal translation as the Queens Pond. This was built with water that was brought from rivers throughout Nepal and India which were considered holy and purifying. This was built in memory of their son Prince Chakrabartendra who tragically passed away.
Gaijatra not only has this historical significance but it is a matter of religious belief. It celebrates not only life but death. It amalgamates different communities with a common sorrow that each one of us has to face. The death of a loved one can be emotionally wrecking, and while we are going through that crossroad of life we tend to lose hope and are filled with despair. Not till we realize that yes it comes through each one of us and we get over it by spreading love, harmony and brotherhood.
It is a festival of hope for the people who pray for their loved ones today to reach the gates of heaven through the Holy Cow, and hence the Gaijatra.